Le la Bekhti
Catalina Sandino Moreno
The idea (by Tristan Carne) of getting a number of international film-makers to create short films set in different districts of Paris for an anthology movie sounds promising. Especially when the directors, writers and actors involved include the likes of the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Gerard Depardieu, Juliette Binoche and Miranda Richardson. How could a multi-faceted portrait of such a fascinating city by so many talented artists fail?
Paris Je T’Aime shows how. Of the 18 stories (originally there were going to be 20, one for each arrondissement, but two didn’t make it), the ones that are really worth watching can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Most of the others are bland or inconsequential, and a couple are appallingly bad. OK, one expects a portmanteau movie such as this to be something of a hit and miss affair, but that is a very low success rate.
The stories within these five/ten-minute films are mainly (but not exclusively) based on various kinds of love, and collectively they form an affectionate tribute to this most romantic of cities. The trouble is that though a wide variety of Parisian life is depicted the general quality of the mini-films is so mediocre that we are more aware of the self-indulgent whimsies of the film-makers than of insights into human relationships.
The most entertaining film is the Coen brothers’ ‘Tuileries’, a delightfully witty and as always visually exhilarating, cautionary tale set in the Metro station. An American tourist (played by a boggle-eyed Steve Buscemi) transgresses his guidebook’s advice that ‘Eye contact should be avoided!’ by looking straight at a young couple canoodling on the opposite platform, and pays the price as cartoon violence takes over.
‘Place des Victoires’ (written and directed by the Japanese film-maker Nobuhiro Suwa), in contrast, is a moving allegory of the dangers of letting grief take over. A mother (played by the always luminous Juliette Binoche) grieving the death of her young son is neglecting her living family and is on the verge of complete mental breakdown as she follows the sound of her boy’s voice into the street, where she meets a ghostly cowboy (Willem Dafoe) on horseback, and has to make a decision about letting go.
‘Loin du 16me’ (written and directed by the Brazilians Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas) follows a young migrant mother (Catalina Sandino Moreno) as she reluctantly leaves her baby in a nursery in her poor part of town and travels a long way by train to the 16th arrondissement where she works as a nanny to a rich woman’s child. With virtually no dialogue, the film makes imaginative use of image and sound to create a powerful but subtle indictment of race and class inequalities.
‘Quartier Latin’ (written by Gena Rowlands and directed by Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu), in which a long-married couple meet one last time before divorce, also makes a positive impact, but this is entirely due to the acting of Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, and the associations they trigger with the memorable films they made with the late independent director John Cassavetes.
Apart from that, there is virtually nothing that makes much of an impression or at any rate, a favourable one. ‘Quais de Seine’ by the British-Asian film-maker Gurinder Chadha is a disappointingly earnest piece of political correctness in which a chauvinistic lad learns the error of his ways by falling for a beautiful Muslim girl, and Oliver Schmitz’s ‘Place des Fetes’ focuses on a young African musician killed in a racist attack without illuminating the social context.
Gus Van Sant’s ‘Le Marais’ is a story of thwarted gay love in a printer’s shop that relies too much on an unconvincing pay-off line, while Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Parc Monceau’, about the rendezvous between an older American man (Nick Nolte) and a young French woman, also leads up to a trite conclusion, shot in one continuous take as a purely technical exercise.
‘Pere Lachaise’ is for once a gore-free Wes Craven scenario about an engaged couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell) quarrelling in a cemetery where Oscar Wilde’s ghost (Alexander Payne) appears to give relationship advice (!), but this whimsy falls totally flat. Alexander Payne also directs the last episode, ’14me Arrondissement’, a rather patronizing account of an American postal worker (Margo Martindale) discovering a new lease of life in her long-anticipated first trip to Paris.
The wooden spoon, however, has to be shared by Christopher Doyle’s ‘Porte de Choisy’, a pretentious and empty vignette about a travelling salesman demonstrating a new product at a Chinese hair salon, and Sylvain Chomet’s ‘Tour Eiffel’, about two lonely mimes falling in love need I say more?
Emmanuel Benbihy and Frederic Auburtin have inserted brief linking sections setting the location and time but the stories seem to be ordered randomly with no narrative or dramatic logic detectable. Of course the whole idea is to provide diverse viewpoints of the city and its inhabitants, reflecting the different backgrounds and personalities of the film-makers, and going beyond the picture-postcard image of Paris. However, without an overall guiding vision the result is a fragmented kaleidoscope with no pattern.